The legal world in 10 years (if we're really lucky)
Here are eight predictions for how the legal sector will be different and mostly better in 2033. If you have an alternative vision, there's one sure way to prove me wrong.
Illustration by Midjourney
I was asked to contribute an article to the latest issue of UK-based legal periodical Modern Lawyer about everyone’s favourite topic, the future of law. I decided to lean into the opportunity and make various unkind remarks about professional predictors before diving into three macro-level forces that will reshape the legal sector, and only then did I get to the actual forecasts.
You can (and should) read the whole article now at Modern Lawyer, but with the kind acquiescence of the editors, here’s an adapted and condensed version of the closing section. (The image above, by the way, was the least hallucinogenic option offered by Midjourney from the single prompt “2033.”)
The really remarkable aspect of how the legal sector operates is how effectively this profession has defended its ramparts against forces that have changed other businesses and professions. “We’re different,” lawyers insist, and whether or not that’s really true, lawyers have had more success than almost any other group in maintaining a sealed competitive environment to which our own rules apply and in which our own preferences hold sway.
The smart money says this state of affairs will continue indefinitely. Lawyers either hold political office or can sway the people who do; judges get the final call on what happens in the justice sector and can halt innovation with a single word; the public believes the legal system is too complicated to navigate alone and too expensive to navigate with a lawyer. The smart money says, “This time is never different,” and continues on as before, counting its profits along the way.
Here’s the thing, though: Eventually, the smart money is wrong. Eventually, at some point, this time is different. Do we live in the same world today as we did in 1993? In 1953? In 1913? Is the legal profession the same as it’s always been? Or is it legitimately, and in many ways radically, different from what it was in our parents’ and grandparents’ time?
And if we accept that change does come, regardless of how hard we might push back against it — and if we recognize that the world is experiencing monumental events that haven’t been seen in 50, 100, 150 years, all of them simultaneously — isn’t it likely, if not highly probable, that this is the moment when the old legal sector finally starts to pass away?
My money might not be very smart. But I’m putting it down here, in writing, to say that this time is different — not only that the legal sector in 2033 will be thoroughly new and unfamiliar compared to what it is today, but also that it ought to be new and unfamiliar. That different is better, and that better is what we should all want.
Here’s how I think the legal world in 2033 will be different — and mostly, but probably not entirely, better.
1. Integrated AI
Generative AI has long since vastly reduced the amount of human time required to perform most lawyer tasks — anything involving legal knowledge, document review and assessment, and legal reasoning and analysis. It’s also contributing significantly to the performance of high-value lawyer tasks like negotiation, advocacy, risk assessment, and opportunity identification. Most importantly, it’s doing these things invisibly, because it’s been hardwired into lawyers’ education and baked into the tools they use every day.
2. Relationship Pricing
The billable hour has not disappeared. Some work that lawyers do remains sufficiently novel or unpredictable that a price can’t fairly or realistically be set for work in advance. But the bulk of legal work isn’t billed by the hour, because lawyers can’t make enough money that way. Fees are set according to widely accepted market prices for familiar services, or within a standard range with numerous key performance indicators, or most optimally, at a price reflecting the ongoing relationship of trust and reliability that holds the real value for both parties.
3. Reorganized Talent
Law firms are moving past the traditional lawyer categories of “partner” and “associate” into a broader array of titles that better describe the value people (not just lawyers) bring to the enterprise. There are “core” leaders with exceptionally strong client relationships or extraordinary proficiency in a particular area. There are “affiliate” specialists with defined supporting and advisory relationships to both the firm and its clients. And there are “satellite” remote workers with arm’s-length contractual positions and few binding guarantees or responsibilities.
4. Upgraded Licenses
Government intervention in legal services regulation is resulting in, among other things, the restructuring of lawyer licensure to lower barriers to professional access and set clear competence standards for admission. Most law schools are still struggling to adjust, and many regulators aren’t doing much better. But law firms are already welcoming new hires with more valuable skills and experiences than any previous cohort, and are upgrading their professional development to give advanced client relationship and business opportunity training to even their newest recruits.
5. High-Value Retainers
Thanks to Gen AI’s consumption of many traditional tasks, lawyers have moved up the value ladder, going beyond “bet-the-company” and “run-the-company” work to start offering “grow-the-company” work (or “advance-the-individual”). These are engagements in which lawyers ask: “How can I improve your situation? What are your near-term and long-term goals? How can I help you anticipate problems and prevent them before they happen? How can I bring you more stability and peace of mind? How can I be your advocate and counsellor in whatever you need?”
6. Distributed Workplaces
The future law office is neither mandatory-attendance nor virtual. Most firms still have a real-world “command center,” where core members of the team show up most every day and colleagues come from time to time to meet, learn, plan, socialize, brainstorm, mentor and be mentored, in premises recently renovated to include dedicated social and collaboration spaces that make the effort of getting to the office worthwhile. There are also satellite locations where remote workers can drop in or where far-flung clients can be hosted for strategy sessions.
7. Recuperating Profession
Slowly but surely, there’s a noticeable reduction underway in lawyers’ seemingly chronic lack of wellness. Law remains a demanding, high-stress business, but the gradual move away from time-and-effortbased compensation and the first signs of better wellness education in the lawyer development process have produced lawyers more prepared and fit for the rigours of practice. Substance abuse, however, remains a serious problem for the legal profession, and older lawyers upset and displaced by the sudden changes in their workplace are particularly vulnerable.
8. Unfulfilled Justice
Universal access to justice is still a distant dream. Regulatory change has made it easier for people to become lawyers and para-professionals, so the supply side of the market is growing. But the demand side still suffers from a lack of civic education around legal rights and remedies, and legal institutions (especially the courts) have held out against change. But grassroots justice efforts, including community-level dispute resolution and AI-driven legal document production, are starting to bring change. By 2043, the formal legal system will be taking lessons from the informal one.
This isn’t a comprehensive or especially balanced list. I haven’t talked about how climate change and world wars will have scarred the landscape, or the massive civil disruptions that these and other events have brought about. We haven’t talked about how the legal profession will still be far more white and far more male than it should be, given the populations of the communities it serves. There are no utopian futures.
But that’s as much as I can say about “the future of law” — broadly drawn and vaguely hopeful as it is. If you want a more concrete and comprehensive vision, them I’m afraid you’ll have to ask somebody else. Specially, you’ll have to ask yourself.
What part are you going to play in determining the future? This isn’t a spectator sport or a video game. “The future” will be what you (and everyone else) make it by your decisions, commitments, sacrifices, and leadership — or, equally, by your inaction on all these fronts.
There’s a meme making the rounds that says, “People in time-travel movies are always afraid of committing one tiny action in the past, because it might completely change the present. But people in the present don’t seem to believe that committing one tiny action in the present could completely change the future.” I think that has it exactly right. The future we get is the future that you and I start making in the present, meaning today, right now.
So if you really want to know the future, ask yourself what you want it to be. And then ask yourself what you’re prepared to do to make that come true.
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